[“Pumpkin,” (2008-2009), fiberglass reinforced plastic]
This exhibition is one of two respective exhibitions in celebration of Yayoi Kusama's eightieth year by Gagosian Galleries in New York and Los Angeles—providing a bicoastal overview of this renowned doyenne of the international art world. Her zany, conceptual work frequently uses repetition and everyday objects across various media as sculpture, painting, film, books, performance art, photo collages, and installations. Called Japan’s greatest living artist, Kusama’s show at Gagosian Gallery (through June 27) is a celebration of her unlikely career and reveals the fixation of her works with repetition, pattern, and accumulation.
Polka dots and nets have served as Kusama’s painting motifs since she started creating watercolors, pastels, and oils as a preteen. Her mental illness—in which she began hallucinating the dots, nets, and flowers subsequently appearing in her work—reinforced its transcendent space and quality. Suffering such hallucinations all her life, her work has become a way to metaphorically communicate those hallucinations. Originally, Kusama studied traditional “Nihonga” watercolor, which is usually done on Japanese “washi” paper or “eginu” silk using brushes.
Having arrived in New York in 1958, she was associated with such artists as sculptor Claes Oldenburg (who is the same age as Kusama) and minimalist Donald Judd. Arriving amid minimalist and abstract expressionist hegemony, her 1959 exhibition of five large-scale “infinity/net” paintings was well received. Kusama’s self-described “obsessive” work was intensely sensual and infused with autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content—and described as a convergence of Freud, Dr. Seuss, and Timothy Leary. Indeed, one of her earliest sculptures exhibited in New York featured an armchair replete with phalluses. Her large “infinity/net” paintings with their repetitive patterns—and embodying an inherent philosophical paradox—were a serious breach with the assumptions and limitations of minimalist abstraction.
A decade after her arrival, the 1968 film “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration,” which Kusama produced and starred in, created a stir in experimental film circles, garnering awards at several film festivals internationally. During that period—the counterculture’s high-water mark—she staged many “happenings” such as body painting festivals, fashion shows, and demonstrations in opposition to the Vietnam conflict.
She returned to Japan in 1973 and has been voluntarily “committed” in a Tokyo mental health facility since shortly after her return. Upon her return to Japan, while Kusama has continued to produce and show art, she has also written a number of novels and anthologies. In 1983, her novel “The Hustlers Grotto of Christopher Street” won her an award for new writers from the literary monthly “Yasei Jidai.”
The above-pictured work, “Pumpkin”—with pumpkin sculptures covered in a pattern of black spots—inhabits a specifically designed, optical environment creating the illusion of never-ending space. Kusama has done other “walk-in” chambers , such as “Infinity Room (Phalli’s Field)”—with mirrored walls and ceiling crammed with soft fabric phalluses covered with dots—and “Fireflies on the Water, ” “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” and “Narcissus Garden” (the latter a survey of gleaming stainless steel spheres). The pumpkin represents, for Kusama, an “alter ego” or self-portrait.
Having represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993, the work of Yayoi Kusama—which offers the viewer a unique and multiple perspective in relation to space— has appeared in such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Walker Art Center (Houston), the Tate (London), the Stedelijk (Amsterdam), the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen (Rotterdam), the National Museum of Modern Art (Kyoto), and the Centre Pompidou (Paris). Kusama’s recent figurative paintings—with their worms, eyes, and more indeterminate biomorphic forms—reflect various preoccupations with mortality, enlightenment, solitude, and the mysteries of the physical and metaphysical universe. The width and breadth of these new works is sublime and ingenious: The viewer may well be mesmerized and understand why Yayoi Kusama is one of the most significant contemporary artists to emerge from Japan.
Through June 27, 2009
@ Gagosian Gallery
555 West 24th Street NYC 10011